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Closing Guantanamo fell into that latter category.

Camp Delta’s population held steady for most of 2012. The only changes were from several detainees who completed their sentences and were released to foreign countries and one who died at the prison. Reports said he committed suicide.

The facility holds 166 detainees now, down from 242 when Mr. Obama took office. Many of those who remain have been cleared for release by the Defense Department.

Another 604 detainees have been transferred either to their home countries or to third countries willing to take them. Nearly 28 percent of those have returned to the battlefield to fight the U.S., according to American intelligence community estimates.

John Yoo, who as a top lawyer in the George W. Bush administration helped craft the legal framework for terrorism policies, said the U.S. will have a place to put detainees as long as it is fighting al Qaeda.

“Better to hold them in a highly secure facility, such as Gitmo, than mixing them in with the general population of a prison in the United States,” said Mr. Yoo, who is now a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

He praised Mr. Obama for adopting the Bush tools of indefinite detention and military commissions, which he said are the best ways to balance fair trials with the need to preserve intelligence secrets.

“It is obvious that the Obama administration, once in office, pulled a 180-degree turn on terrorism policy,” Mr. Yoo said. “I would rather they be hypocritical and protect the nation’s security than maintain a foolish inconsistency.”

Congress has put up two roadblocks to transferring prisoners. The first is a ban on moving detainees to the U.S. and a prohibition on buying or converting a prison inside the country to hold detainees.

The second is a high bar on sending detainees to other countries. Lawmakers required the Defense Department to certify that released detainees won’t become threats — something the Obama administration has been reluctant to do.

Mr. Anders said Mr. Obama could pressure the next defense secretary to issue those certifications, which could help lower the detainee population.

The end of combat operations in Afghanistan could be another chance for the president to make his case.

“At that point, I think the argument for continuing to hold people who were picked up particularly in that area of the world, when the conflict is over and the U.S. has pulled out, I think is going to be impossible to maintain,” Mr. Anders said.

For now, Mr. Obama remains trapped in the middle.

He threatened to veto the defense policy bill that passed Congress late last year if lawmakers kept their ban in place, but once again he relented — though not without issuing a statement decrying the situation.

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